Commentary

Editorial: Legislature was off-base with switch to retention elections for Supreme Court

The Greensboro News & Record makes several excellent points in this morning’s lead editorial regarding North Carolina’s move from standard, contested elections for the Supreme Court to “retention” elections in which sitting justices receive either a “yea” or “nay” vote. While retention elections are not without merit in theory, the editorial notes, in the present case they’re clearly all about politics:

“Yet, as usual, the Republican-led legislature had a partisan motive. Although the court is officially nonpartisan, Edmunds is a Republican and the court has a 4-3 majority of Republican justices. Even if Edmunds is voted out, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory could appoint another Republican to the court. So, the GOP majority is guaranteed to continue at least until 2018.

The legislature also added to a confusing mixture of election processes for state courts. Each level has a different way of electing judges. In Guilford County, for example, District Court judges are elected countywide but Superior Court judges are elected in districts. They are nonpartisan. State Court of Appeals judges are chosen in contested nonpartisan elections, but candidates’ party affiliations will appear on the ballot. No party label will be listed with Edmunds’ name in his retention election.”

The editorial goes on to note that the switch is now being challenged (with good reason) in a new lawsuit as violating the state Constitution:

“One of the plaintiffs, Sabra Faires, is a Raleigh attorney with 30 years’ experience who says she is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court but is denied the chance to run. Indeed she is. Under the new setup, she might not have an opportunity to run for many years, until a justice is voted out or retires.

Furthermore, voters are denied the chance to choose a new justice if they don’t want to retain Edmunds. The constitution requires that justices shall be elected by the voters of the state. The governor, not the voters, would choose someone to replace Edmunds under the new method.

The lawsuit will be contested, and the courts will decide which side is right. But the legislature invited a legal challenge by making this change in such a clumsy way. It should undertake comprehensive judicial reform rather than move pieces around in an inconsistent fashion for partisan reasons. In this case, a proposed constitutional amendment, put to a vote of the people, would have allowed a needed statewide discussion on the best way to choose Supreme Court judges.”

Click here to read the entire editorial.

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